Sony's next-generation handheld has endured a tough start, but developers think it can still turn things around, argues Brett Phipps.
Sony has consistently put on a brave face when discussing the PS Vita. After the system's launch on December 17 in Japan and February 22 across Europe and North America, Sony has always said system sales have met expectations.
However, more recent figures paint a different picture. The first quarter of 2012's combined sales of the PSP and Vita were less than sales of the PSP alone from the year before. Game sales have also seen a 14.5 per cent year-on-year plummet, costing the company nearly £30 million.
Sony continues to state that things are on track for the Vita, but not everyone shares this enthusiasm. Kenichi Ogasawara, producer of Dynasty Warriors NEXT, offers his views on the current state of the Vita.
"I get the impression that its spread in popularity is lower than expected. As a portable gaming device, I think it goes over and beyond the required specs, but at the same time smartphones have become very popular, so at this time I don't think that users in Japan, Europe and North America feel a strong need for it.
"I don't know what kind of expectations Sony has, but I think that all the developers and publishers probably feel that it is not meeting their expectations".
Ogasawara isn't the only developer with concerns. Keisuke Kikuchi, producer of Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus, also has mixed feelings about the console, six months after launch.
'I also feel that in Europe and North America, the user base and sales of software are somewhat lacking'
"The OLED enhanced graphics are beautiful, which was also my first impression [of the device]. But in terms of the software, I think that there is a strong inconsistency in quality among the titles. I also feel that in Europe and North America, the user base and sales of software are somewhat lacking.
"With the hardware's capability and a line-up of games for every genre, I was hoping for better sales at launch, and I feel it is currently weak. I am hoping that through this year's holiday season, a year later we will see a solid market in place."
Despite the growing negativity, Sony has continued to present a united front over the success of the Vita, but behind closed doors it seems even people within the company are well aware of the brewing storm.
"It's become the norm to badmouth the Vita, which I think is unfair, considering the device hasn't even been out that long," said a source from within Sony. "I can't think of another console which has garnered so much negativity in such a short space of time.
"From when it was first announced the Vita had a tough job to do - to take over from the massively successful PSP and also bring the fight to Nintendo. The system itself has the hardware to do both things but I feel it also needs some time."
Sony now seems to be quietly admitting that third-party developers are hesitant to make Vita games. Shuhei Yoshida recently admitted that the growing social and mobile gaming space has impacted on Sony's ability to attract developers to the Vita. Sony is "having a more difficult time than [they] had anticipated in terms of getting support from third-party publishers, but that's our job," he stated in the September issue of OPM.
So it seems that something needs to be done in order to attract developers to the handheld, but what? One developer, who prefers to remain anonymous, suggested that a change in Vita's marketing strategy is needed.
"Improve consumer awareness of the device beyond the gaming audience. People who know what an iPhone is don't know what a Vita is, or why it is a better gaming machine for their kids. This is the first title I've ever worked on where I have to explain to most people where they can get our game".
And perhaps this is one of the Vita's key problems. Aside from the launch window marketing push, we haven't really seen much for the machine or its software in the advertising space. Even at this year's E3, Sony's press conference barely paid heed the Vita at all. The only game footage we saw was buried under dubstep-filled montages. There were no on-stage demos, leading viewers to believe there were no games. And yet there was a strong presence of Vita games on the show floor. This raises another question, are these games not good enough in the eyes of Sony to be given time during the press conference?
One of the biggest games set to come to the Vita, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, was announced during Sony's conference, but all we saw was a picture of what looked like the game cover, hardly edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Sony did announced a white Vita bundle for the upcoming Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, including a 4GB memory card, but it's not enough. In the build-up to E3, there were tantalising rumours circulating that Sony would announce the inclusion of Vita deals with PlayStation Plus. No announcement came, another opportunity missed. Our source at Sony commented on the potential for Vita and PS Plus: "I think the Vita would 100 per cent benefit from being included with PS Plus. I think when the Vita has its own established library, it could really shine if it was included with Plus". The source doesn't stop there, suggesting more can be done to boost sales. "A few more hardware colours and a price drop wouldn't hurt as well".
Again, it all seems so simple, so why hasn't Sony done it? We've seen Nintendo lower the cost of the 3DS, and even release a new 3DS XL, and continue to dominate the hardware sales charts, especially in Japan.
The general consensus is that it all comes down to games. After all, people won't buy a console if there isn't anything to play. In Ogasawara's mind, this is more of a problem in the East: "[Japan] needs more of a complete software lineup. Their PSP market is quite large, so once a follow-up to a strong title is released, it has the potential to start a trend where users will not want to go back to the PSP.
In Europe and North America, I have some doubt whether there really exists a strong need for a high spec handheld game device, so it is difficult to judge what is needed."
The question is should we hold any hope for the future of the PlayStation Vita? Word from within the industry suggests there's reason to be positive. The Vita needs a big software push, and this holiday season could see some big announcements.
Sony sources have told VideoGamer.com that there are games right around the corner. "I hate to be a tease but there are truly great titles coming. Some titles will be huge for Japanese gamers." To hear these words from people within Sony is reassuring.
Taking the console as a gaming experience, the general response is overwhelmingly positive. Every developer mentioned in this article has nothing but good things to say about the device. "Based on our experience, we strongly feel that the Vita is an attractive console," Ogasawara told us, before stating that he's “planning on developing projects that range from completely new titles to expanded ports".
Kikuchi is also planning on working with the handheld again. "We have a grasp on the Vita hardware characteristics, so we think that with our next title we will be able to deliver a game with improved presentation and much more optimised with the Vita's interface," said Kikuchi.
All signs point to this holiday season, which means that announcements could be made as early as next week at GamesCom. It has been confirmed that we will finally be seeing more of Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified at the show.
So, it seems that the handheld isn't dead in the water just yet, but how the next few months play out could be crucial. FunBits Interactive created one of the most popular titles available on the PSN, Escape Plan. Chris Millar, CEO of FunBits, says sales will dictate whether or not FunBits develop more games: "We would like to include the Vita in our future line-up, but if the numbers continue on their current trajectory, it would need to be part of an overall strategy that hits the widest audience possible."
With GamesCom taking place later this week the ball lies firmly in Sony's court. The developers are ready and waiting to bring new titles to the Vita, all Sony has to do is bring the Vita to consumers.